Yes, dear readers, I have returned from my cheese odyssey — with a confession. Although I carried my laptop across an ocean, I only opened it once. And though I planned to post about Puglia and the workshops that brought a number of you with me to Italy’s “boot heel,” well, what can I say? There were meadows to explore. And picnics to prepare. And sheep to milk.
I have returned from Puglia with dusty clothes and ricotta under my fingernails. With new friends in my address book. With memories of three-hour meals. Oh, the three-hour meals! I have never eaten so well for so many days, with so much laughter.
And I have never craved sleep so much since my return. Over the last few days, I have slept the sleep of milk-drunk lambs.
In my dreams, I keep revisiting the cheeses of Puglia (Pecorino, Caciocavallo, Ricotta Forte). And hearing the voice of Tonio, our exuberant host, and Santina, a local cheesemaker, who showed us how to make cheese in the wildest way: with fig branches instead of rennet.
The thing I love most about this odyssey is that it took us from the digital realm — this blog, and the broader internet — into the field. Walking in the hoofsteps of grazing ewes, we learned why the Pecorino around Matera and Altamura tasted so complex. The meadows were full of wild herbs and grains, from chamomile and red clover to wheat and oats.
Tonio Creanza, our host, made sure that we connected the food we ate to the land around us. His field lectures and his local contacts — from cheesemakers to shepherds — helped us not only to eat well but to see more deeply. Great meals begin with agriculture, and the emphasis is really on “culture.” When a region protects its landscape and values stewards of the land, the food culture thrives.
Having Pennsylvania cheesemaker, Sue Miller, along for the ride helped us understand the importance of this connection. There’s a reason why Italy champions “agritourism” and why people, like us, flock to it. Regional specialties, billboard-free landscapes, and knowledgeable locals who are eager to share their passions — these things enliven the senses and fulfill a longing for authenticity in a way no theme park can.
To everyone who took part in supporting this adventure — from the bakers to the butchers, from the participants to the co-organizers, and to you at your desk – Grazie! This odyssey never would have happened without curiosity and generosity.
Over the coming weeks, I look forward to sharing more stories and images. I hope they inspire more dairy dreamers to travel in search of new cheeses, to seek out pasture picnics, and to visit off-the-beaten-path parts of the world where live cultures thrive.
To learn more about our host, visit the website of Messors.
To discover more about the region, visit Puglia’s official site.
Remember back in October when I floated the kooky idea of leading a digital storytelling workshop in Puglia with my friend Aimee Knight? Well, darlings, my valise is packed. Flight leaves tonight. Thanks to you, the first Live Cultures workshop filled. Then, we filled a second.
We plan to Intstagram our journey. Here’s how to follow the story as it unfolds:
- Madame Fromage: @MmeFromage
- Live Cultures: @LiveCultures (we just set this up)
For the next two weeks, we’ll be staying at Messors, a sheep farm in rural Puglia. The stars will be bright, but the internet will be wonky so I may or may not be able to post on this site from the road. You can be sure to hear all about our experiences when we return, from the cheeses to the wines to our walks with the local shepherd and our meals by the sea.
In the meantime, stay in touch and try a new hunk or two. And if you think you might want to glide off to Puglia next summer, drop me a comment. I’ll add you to our list of cheese-loving travelers.
Madame Fromage will be away until June 22, 2014. After her Live Cultures Workshop in Puglia, she’ll travel to the coast of Brittany and to East Sussex to nibble, nibble, nibble.
If you’ve ever wanted to travel to cheddar country and stay in a manor house, get out your duffel. In late September, I’ll be off to Somerset, England for a week-long cheddar tour centered around traditional British cheese and drink. Here’s the best part: four of the six nights, we’ll stay at North Cadbury Court, the manor house belonging to James Montgomery (below), maker of Britain’s premier cheddar.
The house, which has been in the Montgomery family for years, has 21 rooms and was used in the filming of Jane Austen’s Persuasion for Masterpiece Theatre. But wait, there’s more. The land around the house is believed to be the original Camelot. So you can eat cheddar in Camelot — how is that for a pairing?
This odyssey is presented by Cheese Journeys, a company headed by Anna Juhl, a former cheese-shop owner and the matriarch of a U.S. cheese family involved in importing great European cheeses. Juhl’s collaborator is Chris George, formerly of Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. Chris and his wife are expecting this fall…which is why Yours Truly is stepping in.
Somerset and London Cheese Tour, September 22-28
- 6 nights in England (4 nights at North Cadbury Court, 2 in London)
- Tastings of cheese, wine, cider, wild beer, and whiskey
- Feasts prepared with local ingredients, including period recipes
- Visits with cheddar legends James Montgomery, Mary Quicke, and Tom Calver of Westcombe cheddar
- Day trips to markets, cheese shops, and a local smokery
- Gastronomic workshops led by makers, sommeliers, and experts in the field
For pricing, a full itinerary, and booking information please visit Cheese Journeys.
Photo credits: Chris George
Get out your calendars and your table cloths! This summer, I’m teaming up with High Street in Philadelphia for three outdoor dinners with local cheesemakers. We’ve scheduled them on weekends of the new moon (full disclosure: we were calling these “full moon” dinners until I realized that I read the dark circles on my calendar as full moons instead of new moons. Call me astrologically challenged.)
Each dinner will begin with a cheese board presented by the cheesemaker and yours truly. Then there will be a gorgeous family-style meal, prepared by Chef Eli Kulp and the staff at High Street. The idea here is to celebrate regional, seasonal foods on the land where the ingredients were grown and raised. You’ll also get a chance to tour the farm, meet the animals, and maybe even peer into a cheese cave.
The dinners ($85) are BYO and will be served family style. We’re asking that you bring your own place setting (plates, cups, silverware, napkins). Bonus for the person with the most creative table setting: High Street will offer a gift certificate and a pound of cheese!
Below are the dates, farms, and links for directions. These are going to be very special nights — I hope you can join us! Note: each dinner is limited to 25. We expect these to book quickly.
New Moon Dinner Dates
For reservations: 215.625.0988
Friday, June 27: Meadowset Farm & Apiary, Landenberg, PA 7 pm
This beautiful sheep farm located near Longwood Gardens is as picturesque as it gets. Cheesemaker Tom Schaer is a Swiss native who works as a veterinarian by day. He makes two sheep’s milk cheeses, Camel’s Back and Last Straw, and harvests his own honey. For this special dinner, Tom has invited a local winemaker from nearby Va La Vineyards to join the feast. Chef Eli Kulp will prepare a local lamb dinner.
Saturday, July 26: Cherry Grove Farm, (pork) Lawrenceville, NJ 7 pm
Cherry Grove Farm produces a range of rustic raw-milk cheeses at its sustainable dairy in Lawrenceville. If you’re a fan of Buttercup Brie or Herdsman, two of their best known cheeses, you’re in for a glorious evening with cheesemakers Jamie Png and Paul Lawler. Check out the farm store, roam the organic pastures, and visit the “lovely ladies” who supply all the milk. Chef Eli Kulp will prepare a local pork dinner.
Saturday, August 23: Birchrun Hills Farm, (veal) Chester Springs, PA 7 pm
This dinner marks the official kick-off for Sue Miller’s Kickstarter campaign to build a cheese cave on her farm. Sue is a fixture at Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market and a wonderful hostess at Chester County Cheese Artisan events. When you visit her farm, you’ll meet her whole family (including some very friendly Holsteins), taste her raw-milk stinkers and blues, and enjoy a scenic drive through Chester County. This meal will feature the farm’s veal.
Note: This series is an extension of the monthly cheesemaker dinners hosted by High Street this spring. A big thanks to Eli Kulp and Ellen Yin for their support of local cheese.
Despite its humble past life as family-reunion food, The Cheese Ball seems to be making a meteoric comeback. And the person who is making yesterday’s party food today’s adorable centerpiece is Michelle Buffardi, author of Great Balls of Cheese. If you never envisioned yourself making an owl out of cream cheese and Ritz Bits or rolling pimento cheese in shredded cheddar to create a “cheese chick,” crawl under the couch now or reinvent yourself.
Great Balls of Cheese is the sort of book that is just kitschy and creative enough to make a person like me — someone who usually glides past the processed cheese on her way to the Winnimere — buy a 16 ounce tub of Philadelphia Cream Cheese last weekend. The occasion? My annual cherry blossom festival with the neighbors. Here in Fishtown (Philadelphia), we have one tree on our block and when it blooms (for all of 4 days), you better believe we clamor to our stoops to clink glasses.
Because I had, oh, exactly five hours to pull this year’s cherry blossom party together, glomping a few ingredients together for a cheese ball seemed like a quick way to lowbrow my way into a highly effective one-dish affair, a dish that could be eaten while juggling cocktail glasses, small children, and wild dogs. Yes, serving a cheese ball from your stoop on a busy street is much easier than presenting a multi-hunk cheese board with pairings.
The Inside-Out Carrot Cake Ball appealed to my perverse love of carrots and pineapple together. Graham crackers? Hellz, yeah! When do you get to serve graham crackers at grown-up affairs, unless you’re s’moring it up? The combination of creamy cheese, crunchy nuts, and chewy raisins hit all my sweet spots. The only thing I added to this kooky recipe was a little cinammon and nutmeg. If I made this again, I’d serve it with celery sticks for dipping. And I’d make a half batch. This makes a gargantuan orb.
Inside-Out Carrot Cake Cheese Ball
Adapted from Great Balls of Cheese, by Michelle Buffardi
2 cups shredded carrots, squeezed of juice (use paper towels to squeeze)
1/4 cup crushed pineapple, drained well
16 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Dash of cinnamon and nutmeg (optional)
1 cup walnuts, toasted
Before you place the carrots and pineapple in a mixing bowl, make sure the are really are drained. I mean it. Otherwise, your cheese ball will be a little soupy (she says, from experience). Combine the carrots and pineapple with cream cheese, sugar, orange juice, and vanilla in a mixing bowl, along with spices, if desired. Use a spatula to stir.
One the mixture is combined, wudge it into a ball and wrap it in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for two hours or overnight. Before serving, roll your cheese ball in toasted walnuts. Serve with graham crackers, celery, and/or carrot sticks. The author also recommends vanilla wafers, too.